Neftali Feliz, Closer

It didn’t take Texas long to come to the conclusion that Frank Francisco was no longer their best relief pitcher. After two blown saves by Francisco, Neftali Feliz is in as the new ninth inning relief ace for the Rangers.

Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about the relative value of starters and relievers. Even the best relief pitchers in the game are only worth about as much as an average starting pitcher, due to the drastic quantity difference in innings pitched. So, in general, we usually feel like a pitcher should be given as many chances as possible to stick in the rotation before he gets pigeonholed as a full time reliever.

However, there are situations where it makes sense to take a high quality arm and stick him in the bullpen, and I think this is one of those situations.

As Jeremy Greenhouse just showed, not every pitcher responds the same way when shifted to the bullpen. There are pitchers whose stuff plays up in relief more than the average, and they get a significant velocity (and performance) boost when throwing shorter outings.

For this class of pitcher, the relative difference between what they can be as a starter and a reliever is significant enough to overcome the drop in innings pitched. Joe Nathan is the classic example, as he went from a middling back of the rotation prospect to one of the best relievers in baseball after the move.

There are quite a few reasons to think Feliz may be one of these guys. He’s had trouble sustaining his velocity before, and his questionable command of strikeout stuff make it unlikely that he’d be able to work more than five or six innings in most starts before he ran his pitch count up. In his entire professional career, he’s pitched into the seventh inning just once in 53 starts (though, to be fair, Atlanta and Texas were both actively keeping his workload down).

If Feliz is one of these pitchers whose stuff is significantly better in relief than as a starter, then Texas made the right move. They’re a contender in 2010, and the value of a marginal win to them this year is extremely high. Meanwhile, they actually have significant rotation depth, with Derek Holland hanging out in Triple-A waiting for an opening among their starting five. Given his current state of development, Feliz wouldn’t be a significant improvement over what the Rangers already have in the rotation, but there’s a very good chance that he’s their best reliever right now.

The present value of using Feliz as a reliever is quite high. Given that the other option is to have him in Triple-A attempting to develop into a long term starting pitcher, a proposition that is questionable to begin with, I think the Rangers are properly weighing present and future value here. Feliz is a big time talent, but there were good reasons to think his future was in the bullpen regardless of where he pitched this year, and he’ll most help the Rangers try to win the AL West by closing games in 2010.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

23 Responses to “Neftali Feliz, Closer”

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  1. Mike Green says:

    I agree. The only question is whether Washington leverages Feliz’ talent appropriately, by tinkering with the conventional modern closer role. Ideally, you give Francisco some of the easy saves, and let Feliz work part of the eighth inning of tie games etc.

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  2. drew says:

    I might be wrong on this but as I understand it the Rangers aren’t committed to the idea that Feliz is a reliever. This is just an attempt to keep his innings down this year. – If I’m off base please let me know.

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  3. Jim says:

    Feliz really only has 2 effective pitches – therefore, he’d probably never be an effective starter anyway.

    Rangers not only have Holland as depth but McCarthy and next year, Shceppers will probably be starting as well.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      AJ Burnett really only has had two effective pitches for most of his career – therefore, he’s never been an effective starter? Fastball/breaking ball can work for a starting pitcher if it’s a good enough fastball and a good enough breaking ball, and Feliz’s are good enough. The question is durability, not talent.

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      • JMK says:

        It’s my understanding that while technically Burnett only throws 2 pitches, he throws both a 2-seamer and 4-seamer, along with a quick curve that works more as a slider, in addition to a big sweeping curve. That he throws only two pitches is a bit of a misnomer, unless I’ve erred here, in which case I apologize.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      And this 2-pitch assessment is incorrect.

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    • Matt Harms says:

      Rich Harden has been a pretty effective starter with essentially only two pitches, as well.

      Obviously these guys are more the exception than the rule, but it’s not unprecedented.

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  4. Joseph says:

    This is pretty much exactly what happened with Papelbon in 06. They saw Keith Foulke for two appearances and that was enough. The rest was history.

    Obvioulsy Feliz is a better SP prospect than Papelbon was at the time, so what happens from here on out could very different.

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  5. SleepNowInTheFire says:

    Washington stated with certainty that Fransisco is the Rangers closer and that giving the gig to Feliz is temporary. I don’t think this episode is any indication of long-term plans. The long-term situation hasn’t changed. The depth of the Texas starting staff and the questions of Feliz’s prospects for starting were both issues to be considered before Francisco blew up, as they still are. They’ll give Frank his job back when he comes around, and then they’ll be back to the debate on what to do with Feliz in the long run.

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    • joser says:

      They’ll give Frank his job back when he comes around, and then they’ll be back to the debate on what to do with Feliz in the long run.

      Ok, but it’s possible that doesn’t happen until 2011; the Rangers have to do whatever they can to win now. It’s likely that the difference between 1st and 2nd in AL West will just be a handful of games, and Francisco has already cost them two. What will he have to do in his more-limited, lower-leverage appearances going forward to convince Nolan Ryan & Co that he’s “come around” and can be trusted with the ball in the 9th again?

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  6. Bronnt says:

    Honestly, I think this is a culmination of misuse. In 2008 across two levels, he was brilliant as a starter, with a walk rate that wasn’t damning-very sustainable for a good pitcher with plus stuff. Last year, for a team that finished well out of the playoff race, Texas made the call to use him a relief pitcher so that they could find usage for him sooner. He should have been working on developing a third pitch-a change up, or even a two seam fastball would really help him out.

    Instead, he’s been developed as a relief pitcher without ever having had the chance to fail as a starting pitcher. He profiled as a top end starter rather than a closer. He could still become a 5 WAR starter, but his development as a starting pitcher has been set back, so he’s looking at being a 2.5 WAR relief pitcher instead. His value to the Rangers has been effectively cut in half.

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    • Steve says:

      Last year, for a team that finished well out of the playoff race, Texas made the call to use him a relief pitcher so that they could find usage for him sooner.

      This seems a little misleading to me. The team finished out of the standings, but they were in the WC for most of the season. They were only 1 game back in the loss column as late as August 25th.

      I don’t really disagree with your conclusion, but I think you’re painting an innacurate picture of their season to get to it.

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  7. trefor3 says:

    I think SleepNowInthefire is on point here.

    Also, I’m not sure that Joe Nathan is a great comparison here. Nathan wasn’t considered an ELITE starting pitching prospect like Feliz is. The bottom line is the Rangers are playing it safe with IP, as they should. They need his arm in the bullpen now, and it has the side bonus of keeping his innings down. Feliz is young and where he’ll end up in the long run has still yet to be decided.

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  8. Brian Joura says:

    Prior to 2009, Sickels called Feliz, “one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, possibly second only to David Price.”

    They do have rotation depth, but was it in their best interests to move a guy who could have been an ace to the bullpen?

    The one encouraging sign is that Texas has shown some willingness to move guys from short relief roles back to the rotation. Both CJ Wilson and Scott Feldman spent years as short guys before jumping back to the rotation. Hopefully that will happen with Feliz.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      They do have rotation depth, but was it in their best interests to move a guy who could have been an ace to the bullpen?

      Sure it is, just ask the New York media!

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  9. SF 55 for life says:


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    • Kevin S. says:

      Sure, I can buy that Feliz has better stuff than Joba did when he came up, but both fall under the category of “guy who could have been an ace.” Feliz being acier doesn’t change the fact that the Yanks have turned their own potential ace into a one-inning reliever.

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  10. Tyler says:

    Joba looks a lot better in the ‘pen than he does as a starter. More velocity, needs to use his secondary stuff a lot less, doesn’t have stamina issues…

    I wonder with Feliz, though. He’s 22, his fastball sits around 96 on average, he’s got a 9 mph disparity between his heater and his change… Control is an issue, like with Joba, but it didn’t seem like he lost a ton off his stuff. Given his stuff, and that’s he goes three pitches deep, I think he deserves a look in the rotation.

    It bears mention that the Rangers have always gamed to have him experience the majors from the ‘pen before giving him a shot at the rotation, though, to ease him in, as it were. I think he’s got more of a future in the rotation than does Joba, who is 3 years older and noticeably less effective as a starter compared to a reliever.

    Texas has time, I guess, and the luxury of trying both with Feliz. We’ll see.

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    • joser says:

      Well, Nolan Ryan only started 10 of his 25 games in 1969 and 19 of his 27 games in 1970; he wasn’t a full-time starter until ’72. Maybe the Rangers are going back to the “apprentiship in the pen” model of pitcher development.

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  11. frug says:

    My guess is that this only temporary. They may be letting him follow the Pedro model of cutting his teeth in relief while he adjusts to big league hitting. Given what’s been said about his inability to work deep into games and the fact that the Rangers need a closer it makes sense to give him an opportunity to refine his craft out of the bullpen and then move him to the rotation next year.

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  12. Tyler says:

    Wasn’t just Pedro, frug, good point. Johan Santana spent a lot of time in the pen at the start of his career. They eased him in with 5, 10, 15, 20 starts a year, then he became full-time. If they do that with Feliz, I’m pretty sure he’ll be a good starter.

    joser: the Rangers have definitely already come out and said that they plan on letting Feliz play in the pen a bit to get some major league experience before trying him in the rotation. Not lately, pertaining to the closer move, but earlier.

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  13. ToddM says:

    Given that a significant amount of the “workload” for a modern (80 IP max) reliever is warming up in the pen, is there any reason why Feliz *can’t* work on a viable third pitch while not starting games? Is there evidence to suggest that working on something during a season that you don’t plan to throw to live batters will mess up your other pitches?

    Feliz is too good to waste in the pen until he fails in the rotation — and most people don’t think he’ll fail if he’s given a reasonable leash. The Rangers SP depth shouldn’t be a factor if Feliz can be the best of them.

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  14. Tyler says:

    He’s been throwing a heater, change and curveball, as far as I was aware.

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